Puccini’s “La Bohème” made a return to the Metropolitan Opera on Friday, February 16, 2018, with a cast that is slated for an HD performance a week from today. On the evidence of this opening night performance, that transmission the world over should be quite special.
Zeffirelli’s production needs no introduction (though if you want some commentary, check out these previous reviews from Operawire, here and here) but it must be said that the beauty of this particular setting of the work is the freedom it gives its performers and the demands it makes on them to truly enliven its rich and detailed world. The most astute and immersive performers can work magic while those who aren’t up to the task can seem out of place throughout the evening.
As you might anticipate, Friday’s cast was the former, everyone bubbling with excitement and energy that made this “Bohème” quite fun.
The quartet of Bohemians seemed to have no qualms about playing off one another rather intricately and even when things didn’t go as planned, they remained immersed. At one point in the fourth act, Alexey Lavrov’s Schaunard threw an object at Matthew Rose’s Colline as they did their “sword fighting” business outside the window of the garret. Normally, Colline swings the object away with his “sword,” but this time he missed and it came close to hitting him in the head. He dodged, gave his friend a smirk and kept on going. This kind of interplay was everywhere to be seen, particularly in the relationship between Susanna Phillips’ Musetta and Lucas Meachem’s Marcello. It was far more physical than other interactions we’ve seen in recent interpretations, the two throwing stuff at one another in rage or even Musetta hitting Marcello at one point during their third Act exchange. In a strange way, it amplified the physical connection between these two in their more intimate and romantic moments of Act two, and especially the finale in which Musetta throws herself into Marcello’s arms. It also contrasted nicely with the gentle interplay between Mimì and Rodolfo, especially when Sonya Yoncheva’s Mimì gave him a playful and loving shove as the curtain fell on the third act.
The Hero of the Night
Speaking of the two leads, Michael Fabiano had himself quite a night. A year ago he was at the top of his game in the opera as Rodolfo, but on this night seemed to find even more detail and richness. With his friends, he was playful, aloof, and quite comic to look at. And then with Mimì, he was flirtatious at the start and then more and more gentle and tender with her. You could really feel that this Rodolfo as more than just a romantic hero; he was also quite a youthful man still trying to figure out his life. This was amplified by the passionate abandon with which Fabiano imbued his singing. You couldn’t ask for more commitment from him on the emotional spectrum; in some ways, he was the heart and soul of this production. His “Che gelida manina” was notable for its finessed line, but also the intensity that he ignited as he proclaimed who he was or that he had the soul of a millionaire. Of course, the climactic High B (instead of the customary C) was delivered with assurance and poise even though the tenor reportedly had no idea that the orchestra was going to play the aria in a lower key until moments before he had to sing it. Fabiano only seemed to get better and better throughout the opera, whether it be his ringing response “La più divina delle poesia,” to Marcello in the second act, or the sublime “Ebenne no, non lo so,” his singing one rising lament after another, each phrase more powerful than the one that came before. No doubt those final utterances of “Mimì!!!” at the close of the opera will be hard to shake off. The first one was powerful as he gripped Meachem with all he could muster, but the second one left me shaking from how long he held it out and with what abandon he delivered it.
A Potent Mimì
Opposite Fabiano was Sonya Yoncheva whose first major artistic victories at the Met were in this very opera. She is a fine Mimì and her reserved physicality imbues the character with a sense of fragility that emphasizes her tragic destiny. Whereas all the other characters had moments of physical animation, Yoncheva remained less active in this regard. Vocally she was potent and rose to the occasion throughout, her voice flowering gloriously in such passages as “Ma quando vien lo sgelo” or the painful third act duet with Marcelo. In these passages, Yoncheva’s powerful instrument filled the hall wondrously. But she also managed the gentler qualities of Mimì, particularly in the aria “Donde lieta,” which had a rather gentle approach, emphasizing the repetitions “Senza rancor.” “Mi chiamano Mimì” had a more conversational style in the early going, Yoncheva playing up the character’s timidness, but allowing her voice to grow until she reached the aforementioned “Ma quando vien lo sgelo.” She didn’t necessarily imbue the voice with greater weakness in the final act, the timbre remaining rich and vibrant. It hinted that Mimì remained a strong woman even to the end.
Finding New Colors
I’ve seen Susanna Phillips in this role more times than I can remember and it remains refreshing to find her discovering new facets of the character. She is still playful and adventurous in the way she phrases the character’s opening “Quando m’en vo,” especially the staccato ascension to the high B, and she is still subdued and introspective in the solemn prayer at the close of the opera. But we also have feistiness, no doubt the result of playing off of Meachem.
Speaking of the baritone, he has an elegant sound that washes through the theater quite elegantly. His Marcello matched Fabiano’s fire, the two having no problem getting into verbal disputes and even physical alterations when the emotions ran high. It added a dimension to the friendship but coupled with his own physical comportment with Musetta, gave off the notion of Marcello as more of a hothead. No doubt the hypocritical advice he gives Mimì about letting Musetta live freely wasn’t lost on the audience when he started his jealous rampage at the close of the third Act. But he was also quite warm and serene, particularly in the Act four quartet, his voice and Fabiano’s melding into one nostalgic wave of melody. You couldn’t help but feel bad for them, especially when Marcello revealed the painting of Musetta he was working on as Rodolfo showed him Mimì’s old “cofietta.”
The rest of the cast was of the utmost quality with Alexey Lavrov (Schaunard) and Matthew Rose (Colline) matching the fire and play of the other two Bohemians. At times it seemed like they were all playfully looking to upstage one another, ultimately getting their own great moments to shine. For Rose, it was the famed aria “Vecchia zimarra senti,” which was rather subtle in approach, his voice never quite blasting into space. It kept the entire aria rather private and introspective, and fit with the growing somber mood of the scene. Lavrov’s attempts at ballet drew some of the biggest laughs of the evening and his flirtations with Musetta in the second act, also got a major reaction from the viewers.
In the pit, Marco Armiliato drew a finessed reading of the familiar score, even though gaffe on «Che gelida manina, » during which the orchestra played in a lower key not agreed upon, remains an odd occurence. Per Fabiano, the tenor and Armiliato had agreed from day one that they would perform in the original key, but somehow the ensemble did something completely different. That said, he seemed content with letting his singers dictate the pace and my few glances in his direction confirmed that his attention remained on the stage quite often, his gestures with the baton economic at best. The orchestra responded wondrously throughout the evening, compaginating well with the soloists and chorus.
And yes the chorus was as present as ever in that second act, filling the theater with rapturous sound.
“La Bohème” never gets old for some people. Casts like this one are reasons why.